“Blessed Are the Cheese Makers”

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

The Sermon on the Plain

TEXT: Luke 6:17-26

Jesus came down with the Twelve and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. (Luke 6:17)
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

In the classic Monty Python movie, “Life of Brian,” Jesus goes up on the mountain side to teach the people. There’s a huge crowd gathered around him—so vast that some of the people who are on the outer edge of the crowd cannot hear his words and must ask others what the master has said.

As Jesus pronounces what have become known as the Beatitudes, one of the characters in the movie—desperate to know what Jesus is saying—asks a man who is ahead of him in the crowd, “What is he saying? What is he saying?”

The man checks with a person in front of him, who in turn checks with someone else, who checks with someone else … and then the message is relayed back. The Master says, “Blessed are the cheese makers!”

I thought that would make a good sermon title: “Blessed Are the Cheese Makers”.  It reminds us how often we confuse what Jesus has said, and it makes us think about who is blessed and who is not.

Who are the blessed ones anyway? Who is it that God favours? And who does God not favour? Who is it that God warns with troubles and woes?

The author of the third gospel—the Physician we know as Luke—clearly thought a fair bit about that. His account of Jesus’ sermon—which we like to call the “Sermon on the Mount”—is different than Matthew’s version. Now, Luke does not contradict what Matthew had to say—but he does give us an alternate view of Jesus’ sermon. And in some ways, Luke’s version is clearer—and perhaps more useful.

In Luke, the sermon is not preached from a hillside, where Jesus can look over the top of the crowd and hand down the Word from on high to those who are beneath him. No. Luke’s account is set on a plain—on a level place where a large crowd has gathered and pressed in upon Jesus; where he has been walking amongst them, healing their diseases and curing their afflictions.

Also, in Luke, Jesus not only announces who is blessed by God—but also who is not! As Luke recounts the story, Jesus enunciates a series of curses or woes to match the blessings:

  • “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
  • “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled … Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”
  • “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh … Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”
  • “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on the account of the Son of Man … Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Think about it. What does this list say about our aspirations? About our dreams? About our rushing out to buy lottery tickets in hopes of winning a jackpot? What does it say about our attempts to fill our days with mindless diversions and endless entertainments? And what does it say about the value of our sorrow, our pain, and our hunger? What does this list of blessings and woes say about what God is about? About where God is? About who God is for?

God reverses all our expectations—the expectations that we learn from the world—and I, for one, am glad of it! You see, I need to know that God understands my pain, my poverty, my despair, my sin, my fear. I need to know that God is with me the way that I really am. I need to know that the image of joy and success and happiness and prosperity that is portrayed 24 hours a day on television—that image that I cannot make real for myself no matter how hard I work—is a false image! It is a false image of blessedness.

I need to know that God is beside me where I live: on the plain, on the level; where I am sick and in need; where I struggle to do what is right; where I fight to keep hold of my faith. I need to know that I can touch Jesus—and be touched by him—right here and right now; that I don’t have to have all the answers—or understand all the mysteries, or be perpetually, joyfully confident—in order for him to care about me.

The promise of Christ—in both the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel and in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s—is that there is joy on the other side of grief, laughter on the other side of tears, fulfillment on the other side of hunger, and joyful reward on the other side of the abuse and the ridicule we receive because we cling to him.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good time. I like a good joke. I’m happy when I can forget my problems. I feel good when I can shut out the troubles of the world around me and just relax. But I feel God’s presence and God’s power most intensely not in the good times—the easy times, the times when I am blind to the pain within me and the pain around me—but in times of need, and challenge, and hurt. As someone once put it, “God can work with us in our best worst moments.” God can accomplish something for us—and in us, and through us—when we are open to him in our need. In those “best worst moments,” we realize that God understands; that Jesus was where we are; that he had doubts and uncertainties and fears; that he had no home to call his own, no friends that he could really count on when times got tough; that he wept and he cried—and he got angry, too!

And we realize that God was with him in all those times; and God strengthened him, and gave him the victory.

Happiness—blessedness—is not found in wealth, in three square meals a day, in mindless laughter, or in the good opinions that others may have of us. Blessedness is found in surrendering. Blessedness is found in knowing our need—and the need of the world around us—and in discovering that God really cares, that God is really present with us even in the worst of times, and that God will vindicate all those who cling to him in the midst of trouble. Yes Cling to him, and not to the god of material success, or the god of self-reliance, or the god of blind happiness.

Blessedness is found in trusting God and in doing the works of God—the works of loving, and caring, and healing, and sharing, and forgiving.

“Blessed are the cheese-makers—for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Perhaps there is more wisdom in this mishearing of Jesus’ words than in the popular distortions we see in the world around us:

  • Blessed are the cheese-makers who do their best for one one-hundredth of what hockey players receive.
  • Blessed are the factory workers who share their jobs rather than hoarding overtime.
  • Blessed are the single moms who struggle to feed and clothe their children and to teach them self-respect.
  • Blessed are the lonely widowers who make time to visit those who have suffered the same kind of loss as they.
  • Blessed are those who are rooted in faith and who share what they have, materially and spiritually, with others.

Blessed are those who know their need, and who trust in God, and follow in God’s way; they are like trees planted by streams of water. Their leaves do not wither. In all that they do they prosper.

Thanks be to God for such as these.

 

“Taken Alive”

Luke 5:1-11 (NRSV)

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God,  he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.  He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”  When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.  So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.  But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken;  and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”  When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

Simon Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Then Jesus said to him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

In C.S. Lewis’ novel The Great Divorce—which describes a traveler’s visit to Hell—a guide attempts to explain why it is that so many souls wind up there:

‘Milton was right,’ said my Teacher. ‘The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends. Ye call it the Sulks. But in adult life it has a hundred fine names—Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride … But the time comes on when, though the pleasure becomes less and less and the craving fiercer and fiercer, and though he knows that joy can never come that way, yet he prefers to joy the mere fondling of unappeasable lust and would not have it taken from him. He’d fight to the death to keep it. He’d like well to be able to scratch: but even when he can scratch no more he’d rather itch than not.’ 1

Lewis’s revolutionary idea in the The Great Divorce is that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside. 

What does that mean? I think it means that it’s possible to become so identified with a particular thing that it holds you hostage. Then you must decide whether you wish to escape. You must take the risk of giving up the thing—whatever it is—or you will never, ever be free.

A career can be like that. It becomes your passion, your joy, the thing that defines you. However, since it has become your obsession, it has also become your curse. Eating into your leisure time. Alienating your friends. Poisoning your marriage. In short, ruining your life. Still, the thought of surrendering the thing that has become so central to your existence is painful in the extreme. The very prospect of such a surrender is terrifying.

And yet, you realize that your salvation has something to do with that awful word “surrender”. It means giving up the illusion that you are actually in control of your destiny. Deep down, you know that you must relinquish control over your life, because that is the only way things will change for the better. But, trusting enough to make that leap … therein lies the challenge.

In our gospel reading, Simon Peter gets a glimpse of the kind of power and grace that was embodied in Jesus and falls down on his knees before him in a profound recognition of his own sinfulness.

Let’s back up a bit. To understand the significance of this story of the miraculous catch of fish and the call of the first disciples, we need to remember that Jesus was not a fisherman. He was a carpenter from the Nazareth hills. What could he possibly know about fishing?

Peter, on the other hand, likely came from a long line of fishermen. He had probably grown up on the shores of Lake Galilee. He knew his occupation—and he knew that body of water. When a wandering backcountry rabbi suggested a new fishing strategy to him, it must have seemed a bit like a junior league goalie giving tips to Jacob Markström. Peter is the master fisherman here. Jesus is nothing but a rank amateur.

Here, Luke is carefully setting the stage for a plot twist. He has Peter patiently humoring Jesus to show the rabbi from Nazareth that—while he might know something about preaching and teaching and storytelling—he knows absolutely nothing about catching fish.

Of course, the miraculous happens; and Peter is so awestruck by the huge catch of fish that he becomes terrified to the point of contrition.

The question is: what was it about Jesus or about this experience that so overwhelmed Peter and his companions?  While Luke is quite comfortable telling miracle stories about Jesus, we know that he also had a healthy skepticism about the place of miracles in the generation of faith (see Luke 11:19 and Acts 8:9-11). A miraculous catch of fish would have impressed anyone, including Peter and his friends. But Luke’s Jesus is not primarily a wonder worker. He doesn’t try to force people’s convictions and affections by shocking them with enormous marvels. Rather, he is a teacher, a healer and a storyteller who came to tell people that God loved them with an absolutely infinite love.

Peter surely knew that the sea was a mysterious place and that fish were miraculous creatures. He understood that the skills of a fisherman were the result of divinely inspired insight and understanding. As a God-fearing, first-century Jewish fisherman, Peter would have believed that everything in the world was a revelation of God’s power; that dazzling events happen; that help often arrives when people most need it.

It was not, in other words, the power that Jesus possessed that had such a deep impression upon him. No. It was the love revealed in Jesus’ relationship with him. When Jesus spoke to him and said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people,” Peter came face-to-face with the creative power of God at work in his own life. This beauty, power and majesty he already knew in the miracle of creation was now reaching out to him. More than that, it was calling him.

“From now on you will be catching people.” Mark this: the word translated as “catching”2 meant “to take alive” in the sense of rescuing from death. I think we can safely assume that Peter got the point. In Jesus, he had found someone who would never abandon him and never let him go. And in that moment, kneeling on the malodorous deck of a fishing boat, he was okay with being taken alive.

There are times when “being taken alive” is a bad and dangerous idea. And not just on a literal battlefield. It is self-destructive and ultimately selfish when we surrender to the immediate gratification of an affair that could fatally wound our marriage, to that drink that would set off another cycle of addiction or to that desire for revenge that would indulge our worst instincts.

Similarly, there are people who want us to surrender to them, to bow to their power over us simply so that they can gain control over us. “Going with the flow” can carry us over the waterfall. There are people and things out there that are intent on doing us harm when we surrender to cowardice and despair and helplessness and fear.

But there is another kind of surrender that is not only good for us; it is the way out of hell. I am talking about the kind of surrender we allow ourselves to experience when we learn to trust a love greater than our fears.

The variety of surrender exemplified here by Simon Peter is the kind of trust that occurs when we encounter a love far greater than ourselves. Then, being “taken alive” is sheer ecstasy and joy. Because we know that it is a love that seeks what’s best for us, we are not afraid of surrendering to it. Finally, we are not only free to be ourselves but … we have no choice but to be ourselves. We have been taken alive.

And that is why Peter and his fellows, when they had brought their boats ashore, left everything and followed Jesus.

May it be so, also, for each one of us.

_____________________

1 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1945), p. 66.

2 zōgrōn (ζωγρῶν)

 

WHAT DOES GOD’S LOVE LOOK LIKE?

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

TEXTS: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 and Luke 4:21-30

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-2).

First Corinthians, chapter 13. Kind of distressingly … every time, now, that I hear that text … it reminds me of a movie.

Yup. A movie: Wedding Crashers. Have you seen it? It’s an old one. It came out in 2005, starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as John Beckwith and Jeremy Grey, divorce mediators who spend their free time crashing wedding parties as a way to pick up women. And we worry about pastors not having professional standards!

Anyway, John and Jeremy—Owen and Vince—pull off their conquests by developing elaborate cover stories to charm the crowd and become the life of the party. In one of the early scenes, the two are at a wedding ceremony; and when the priest announces that the bride’s sister will now read Scripture, John says to Jeremy, “Twenty dollars, First Corinthians.”

To which Jeremy replies, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.”

The bride’s sister mounts the lectern and begins, “And now a reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.”

My money would have been on First Corinthians, as well. Because of its routine appearance at weddings, almost everyone is familiar with this Bible passage. And its popularity is easy to understand. Certainly, this is one of the most beautiful love poems in all of Scripture.

Like most of you, I expect, I love it when love looks lovely.

I love it when love looks like a mother holding her newborn for the first time.

I love it when love looks like a bride and groom reciting their wedding vows.

I love it when love looks like a couple—married for over 60 years—who still hold each other’s hand as they walk into church … not to keep from tipping over … but because they are still that much in love.

I love it when love looks like the beaming faces of grandparents as they watch their children’s children perform in a Christmas pageant.

I love it when love looks lovely.

But those of you who’ve ever tried to love for a lifetime—who’ve sought to love authentically, in a Christ-like way—you know that love does not always look like that.

It does not always look like a mother with a newborn—because the newborn grows up. Then that child is two-and-a-half and has a terrible cough and can’t sleep—and it’s four in the morning and the exhausted mother, who wants desperately to sleep herself, is sitting up rubbing that child’s back because that’s the only comfort she can offer.

Or now that child is 17, and you told her to be home at 10 o’clock … and now it’s 11:35 and she’s not home yet. You’re pacing back and forth. You’re worried. You’re frightened. Where is she? And is she OK?

Sometimes love looks like waiting, doesn’t it? Sometimes love looks like patience.

Sometimes love looks like rising before dawn after too-short-a-night because you’re holding down two jobs to try to make ends meet. Because you have to buy groceries and make the rent and purchase clothing and school supplies. And it’s grinding you down. But you do it anyway.

Sometimes love looks like starting over. Or just getting through the day. Or being willing to forgive yet again.

When Jesus calls us to love one another, he is calling us to a demanding vocation. And when Paul wrote his magnificent ode to love in First Corinthians 13, he knew that we see the greatest image of love when we behold Christ Jesus upon the cross. Jesus gave everything for our sakes. That is what love really looks like.

When Paul tells us that “love never ends”—or, as some translations say, “love never fails”—he’s not talking about our feelings. Because feelings do fail. Honeymoons do come to an end.

Paul was talking about the kind of love whereby we wake up every morning … and we decide. We decide to do what is right. We decide to do what is just. We decide to do what is generous and sacrificial—not because we’re going to get anything in return, not because we’re going to receive adulation or applause, but because it is the Christ-like thing to do. And we do it even when we don’t feel like it.

Listen once again: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

When I hear those words from the apostle, I stand convicted—because I know that my own love rarely looks anything like Paul’s description. I suspect it’s that way for many of you, also. And that is precisely why we need to stay focused on the love of God made manifest in Christ.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth. He has just finished reading from the scroll of Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).

Then he rolls up the parchment, sits down, and says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Nazareth, of course, is Jesus’ hometown. He had grown up there. People in that synagogue knew him well. They’d witnessed him falling and scraping his knee. They’d seen him on the days when he didn’t feel so well—and on the days when he got into some trouble and Mary and Joseph had to correct him. They’d watched him learn. They’d watched him worship.

And here, in his hometown, Jesus announces that he has come to fulfill the promises God made through Isaiah. He has come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed. He has come to open everybody’s eyes. The year of the Lord’s favour is now!

Through his life and ministry, Jesus was answering the age-old question: “What does God’s love look like?”

As it turns out, God’s love looks like tenderness and compassion—and inclusion of society’s outcasts. It looks like patience with the habitual sinner and kindness toward the stranger. This is how divine love appears, displayed in the person of Jesus. God’s love looks like God’s Son.

But the folks in Jesus’ hometown are not so sure they want God’s love to look like that. They’re not so sure that they want God’s Messianic servant to look so much like … Like this boy who had grown up in their midst. Like this young man who looked so much like … everyone else.

So many people in our time are just like those in Jesus’ time. They want God’s love to look like our own imperfect love—limited and delineated; controlled—and rationed. Served up in reasonable portions. Given to some and not to others—because some are “in” and some are “out.” Some are excluded, and some are welcomed.

But here is Jesus, saying and showing that God’s love is for all—offered to all, and available in ways that tear down the walls we have erected to hide and to divide. And the good people of Nazareth conclude: “We don’t want God’s love to look like that. We don’t want God’s love to look like him!

And so, here in his hometown—for the first time, but not the last—Jesus is rejected. He is condemned. Sometimes, love looks like suffering. It looks like sacrifice.

Some years ago, I got to know a woman who had been addicted to heroin; I’ll call her Susan. I’ve told her story before, on this blog site—so today I’ll give you the condensed version.

This young woman—whom I’m calling Susan—would do whatever she had to do to get money for drugs. And that usually meant doing some very ugly things. Over the years, she half-heartedly tried to quit, but (of course) without success. Susan told me that a big part of her problem was that she hated her life—and so she could see no good reason for straightening it out. That is, not until her baby girl was born.

It was obvious that the heroin had done tremendous damage to this poor infant. The baby looked normal enough, but she screamed and cried most of the time, and she was very sick all of the time. When Susan saw this, it broke her heart. She had not expected to love this little girl. And she was appalled by the damage she had done.

The infant was, of course, apprehended by social services and placed in foster care. But Susan wanted her daughter back. And so, for the first time in her life, she had a compelling reason to change.

She went into rehab once again—but this time, she worked very hard to get well. After that, she joined a support group and made some tremendous positive changes in her life.

To make a long story short, Susan’s child was eventually returned to her. That was many years ago, and Susan has remained clean and sober until this present day. That baby girl has herself grown into a fine young woman, with a bright future.

You see, Susan turned out to be a very good mother. If you were to ask her what made the difference for her—what finally made her want to turn her life around—Susan would tell you it was the sight of her newborn baby in severe distress.

In that moment, she found out not only what love feels like—but also what it looks like. Love showed her how terrible her addiction (her “sin,” if you like) truly was. And her love for her child—her own unanticipated love—was what finally brought her to repentance.

As I contemplate her story, it occurs to me that—in a very real and literal sense—Susan’s baby daughter became as Christ for her. In her own tiny body, she bore her mother’s sin, and by doing so … she removed it.

When love breaks our hearts—when love demands a sacrifice—we need to remember what we see whenever we behold our crucified Saviour. And we need also to remember that from sacrifice, new life is born—as death gives way to resurrection.

I wonder what would happen if we Christians really took Jesus—and the apostle Paul—at their word. I wonder what would happen if we began—through the grace of God—to love one another with a fierce and faithful holy love.

I wonder what would happen if we focused upon the cross, and said to ourselves: “Yes, sometimes love—even my love—is going to look like that, and feel like that. But I am willing to pay the price, so that my love will never fail.”

I wonder what love could look like—in your life, and in mine. Could it look like us feeding the hungry? Or visiting the lonely? Or giving a warm coat to someone shivering in the cold?

Could it look like us working for justice? Or extending mercy? Or forgiveness? Could it look like us letting go of grudges, and petty resentments?

Could love—in us—look like compassion, as we support those who minister to the last and the least?

Always—always—love looks like Jesus. And sometimes, friends—sometimes

Sometimes, love looks like us.

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR BODY?

Third Sunday After Epiphany

TEXT: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:12-13)

How do you feel about your body?

Is that a strange question to ask? I’d guess that most of us would rather not think about our bodies. And if we do, we may not think very complimentary things. It’s too fat or too skinny, too short or too tall. It’s bumpy, or lumpy, or just plain unattractive. Kind of like the kid who was so ugly that his parents took him everywhere they went so they wouldn’t have to kiss him good-bye!

At least, that might be the way we think about it. So it’s kind of odd to hear Paul saying: Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

Now all of you together are Christ’s body, and each one of you is a separate and necessary part of it. What a statement! You—yes, you—are the Body of Christ.

Take a moment and think about the members of your local congrgation. Each one of you makes up one part of the body of Christ. As Paul searched for a way to describe the church of Jesus, the metaphor he kept coming back to was this one: the similarity between the church and the human body. In Romans, First Corinthians, Ephesians and Colossians, Paul makes over 30 references to “the body of Christ.”

Even those of us who are familiar with the Bible tend to skip over things like that without really taking the time to think about it. We all know what a body is; after all, each one of us occupies one every day. But do we ever pause to contemplate these vessels in which we reside? Can we see how this flesh and blood is like the church of Jesus Christ?

The first thing we need to recognize is that the analogy of the body applies to two definitions of the church—the “church catholic” (or “universal”), and the local congregation. Certainly, “the body of Christ” refers to the “church universal”—to that great, all-encompassing group of Christians throughout the world who call themselves by so many different names.

My own denomination—the United Church of Canada—is part of the same body as the Anglican Communion, the Roman Catholic Church, all the Baptists and Lutherans, and everybody who identifies as evangelical or liberal, Reformed or non-denominational. Not to mention the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Orthodox in Ethiopia, house churches on mainland China, Presbyterians in Korea, Pentecostals in Samoa, and Methodists in Bermuda.

I’m told that, in this Year of Our Lord 2022, there are over 33,000 distinct Christian bodies worldwide. That statistic includes over 3.4 million worship centres and more than 2.5 billion Christians of all ages. Those are impressive statistics!

However, the local church needs to be viewed as the body of Christ, as well. Not just those huge mega-churches that dot the North American landscape, but also those small, struggling congregations that struggle to survive and serve day-by-day. But why? Why did the Apostle Paul choose something as frail as the material body to illustrate something as mighty as the church of Jesus Christ?

Someone has said that the personality is the thing which gives unity to the many and varied parts of the body. When it comes to my body, that’s me. “It is I.” This is a hand and this is a hand. That’s an ear and there’s another ear … and here’s an elbow … and they’re all separate. But “I” bring unity to make all of those things part of my body.

What I am to my body, Christ is to the Church. It is in him that all the diverse parts find their unity.

Do you see what I mean? Alone you are just a Marlene or a Margaret; a Dorothy or an Irene; a John or a Douglas or a Robert.

But add Jesus Christ … and you become part of his body!

Jesus is no longer in the world—at least, not in the same physical body which once he had. And so, if Jesus wants a child taught in Sunday School, then he needs someone like you or I to do the teaching. If Jesus wants someone to be touched by compassion, then he needs us to be compassionate. And when, today, Jesus wants to weep … he needs our tears.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12).

Each part of your body has something in common—and that something is you! Your left leg doesn’t belong to one person and your right leg to somebody else. Instead, each individual part of your body has “you” in common. You are the common denominator that ties everything together. Just so, the body of Christ has a common focal point—and that is Jesus.

At the same time, there is a diversity within the body. No two body parts are identical. Not only are your hands and feet different, but your two hands themselves are different. Each one of your fingers has a different fingerprint. We look at our bodies and we marvel at how God has created this phenomenal piece of equipment!

We have ears that hear, eyes that see, and feet that walk. And none of us object to that arrangement.

When was the last time you said, “Boy, I wish I could see with my toes?”

Or, “I wish I could smell with my ears!”

Neither do we say, “I wish I was a big foot or a very large eye.”

The diversity of the body is no accident; it’s all part of the Creator’s plan. It’s funny, isn’t it, how—even though God insists upon unity—he complicates the matter by also insisting upon diversity.

All too often, we try to make every member of the body of Christ identical. According to some people, all Christians ought to look alike, dress alike, think alike, have the same haircut, read the same translation of the Bible, enjoy the same type of music, and vote for the same political party.

In other words, those people think that all Christians ought to do things one way. And you know what way that is, don’t you? That’s right—their way! But, you know, God did not make us identical at our first birth—and I don’t think he intended to make us identical at our second birth, either. Each of us is essential to the well-being of the body. I like the way Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s words in The Message:

If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? (1 Cor. 12:15-17) *

We smile when we hear that. But, in the church, we often do the same thing. We put ourselves down.

Someone says, “Because I can’t preach like Billy Graham, I’m not a part of the body.”

Or, “Because I can’t sing like Ray, I’m not part of the body.”

Or, “Because I can’t play piano like Marilyn, I’m not part of the body.”

But we don’t just need preachers any more then we just need soloists. Or piano players. Or people who can tell children’s stories. When you think about it, we need teachers, and we need prayer partners, and we need people with big hearts to love and with long arms to hug.

Paul is adamant that each one of us plays a vital role in the body of Christ. The thing is, we all need to be heading in a common direction. The challenge before us is how to preserve our diversity while maintaining our unity.

It would be relatively easy for us all to be different (most of us are quite different, as it is). And I’m sure that if we really wanted to—and if we tried really hard—we could become fairly united. But to be different and united at the same time … well, that isn’t easy!

But if we consider once again Paul’s analogy, we see that—with our physical bodies—this is not only possible, but is in fact essential. I can be scratching my head with my hand, walking across the floor with my feet, seeing with my eyes, hearing with my ears, and smelling with my nose—all at the same time! The secret to keeping the body of Christ on the right path is that we must be working toward a common goal. And, hopefully, that goal is to introduce people to Jesus.

If your left foot wanted to go one place, and your right foot wanted to go another place—you’d be in a real predicament, wouldn’t you? But you say, “I’m going to walk over there.” And the instructions leave your brain and travel through your central nervous system, causing each of the required body parts to work as necessary to take you on that journey.

In the same way, Christ fixes the direction that he wants the church to go. And then each of us—as a part of this particular body—moves in unison toward that goal. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members may—as Paul says—have the same care for one another.

If one member suffers,he says, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor. 12:25-26).

Did you hear that? When one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts.

What happens when a part of your physical body gets hurt? If you hit your thumb with a hammer, what happens?

Actually, several things happen all at once. Your mind registers pain, tears come to your eyes, you grab said thumb with your other hand, and you start jumping up and down while … words … spill out of your mouth …

What happened? Even though it was just one very small part of your body that was hurt, many other parts of your body became involved in reaction to the pain. In just the same way, when one part of the body of Christ hurts, it is up to each of us—as additional parts of the same body—to react (hopefully, to help lessen the pain).

It may be the kind of hurt that comes with the death of a loved one. Or a divorce, or a lost job, or a betrayal. It may be that someone has  given in to temptation and needs to be lovingly restored to the body. That responsibility lies not only with the pastor, or with the members of the board, or with the person sitting next to you. No. It lies with you.

So, as we contemplate the future direction of our shared body, the question I want to ask each one of you is this: what role will you play? What function will you perform? How will you help to make this body all that it can be?

The apostle Paul has reminded us that “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body … and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13).

There’s no question that God has given spiritual gifts to every single one of us. Each one of you has gifts—each one of you has talents and abilities to share, for the common good. And—right now, more than ever—this big-little-harmonious-divided church of ours needs all of them.

But the good news is: we have been baptized into one body. We have been made to drink of one Spirit. And we have been made to have the same care for one another.

Sure. We still have some personality conflicts. We have our differences. Some of us are eyes. Some of us are ears. Some of us are arms. And some of us are armpits …

But you know, we do have care for one another—and great love for Christ, who is our head. That’s why one out of every three persons on the planet gathers in Jesus’ name on a Saturday or Sunday morning. We’re here for one another, because of Jesus, who binds us together. That is our saving strength. He is our saving strength.

Thanks be to God.

_______________________

* The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson.

WINE FOR THE WEDDING

Second Sunday After the Epiphany

TEXTS: John 2:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ (John 2:3-5)

Today’s gospel lesson might be familiar to you because it’s often read at wedding ceremonies—and the reason for that is obvious. However, the story of the wedding at Cana of Galilee is also commonly read during the season of Epiphany. In fact, that’s a tradition that even predates our modern lectionary. And the reason for that is obvious, too, if you think about it.

The theme of Epiphany, you will recall, is the revelation—the showing off to the world—of Jesus the Christ. During the Epiphany season, we hear all these gospel passages which “reveal” who Jesus is, and what he’s all about. Changing water into wine was the first of Jesus’ miracles—the first time he gave a real sign to his disciples of what was going on with him.

Now, when it comes to theology, this reading is a gold mine—albeit a challenging one. One of the things Jesus does here is replace a Jewish ritual with the reality of his presence.

Remember those “six stone water jars” that held 20 or 30 gallons each? They were there “for the Jewish rites of purification.” When full, they contained enough water to fill an immersion pool used for ceremonial cleansing. They were not supposed to be used for any other purpose. But Jesus ignores that convention, and turns them into gigantic wine barrels.

Wow! The Jewish rites of purification are superseded—overwhelmed, really—by who Jesus is and by what Jesus does. And there is much, much more. I could go on and on, talking about the theology of this passage.

I won’t, though. Because this is a blog, not a master’s thesis. And also because, first and foremost, this is a story—and it’s a great one!

Notice that Mary starts out as the real hero of the piece, telling her son he’s got to do something for this wedding couple. At first, Jesus seems reluctant to act. He tells Mary that all of this is none of his business, and that he has other plans about revealing his true identity. His time has not come.

Mary, however … well, she pretty much ignores that and assumes that Jesus is going to be a good boy and listen to his mother!

And he does.

Now, something we need to understand is this: in those days, running out of wine at a wedding was not simply a minor social inconvenience. It was not like, “Well, the wine’s gone, so we have to switch to beer.”

No. In first-century Jewish culture, this was a major breach of the requirements of hospitality. In fact, it was a disgrace—and it would be devastatingly embarrassing for this couple. Everywhere they went, for the rest of their married life, this would be remembered. They would become known for it. They would be ridiculed, and whispered about. The strain on their life together would be enormous.

Realizing all of this, Jesus must decide what to do. He must decide whether to change his timetable. Should he wait before making himself known, as he had planned? Or should he act right now, responding to this urgent need?

Well, we know how the story turns out. Jesus does act, the wedding day is saved, and the bride and groom are rescued from a major embarrassment. As you probably realize by now, this story is not about the bride and groom. It is about Jesus. It is about all that theology I mentioned a minute ago.

This is important.  The first time Jesus made himself known as the Messiah, he did so in response to real and important human need. Not according to his own plans, or his own agenda, but in order to solve someone else’s problem.

Think about it. Jesus’ first manifestation of his glory—the first of his signs—was not for or about himself. He did not make a great big circus out of it. He didn’t pitch a revival tent, gather a crowd, and then start healing the sick and raising the dead. No. Instead, the signs of his calling—and of his identity—were drawn out of him. You could almost say they were dragged out of him—not by his own plans and schedule, but by the needs of those around him. And by his mom.

So, this gospel passage begs the question: What does it mean for Jesus to be the Messiah? What does the Son of God look like, in human flesh? How does he behave?

The answers to those questions are found in his response to the realities of human life and need.

Jesus’ identity as God incarnate—and all the power that went with it—these were not things that he used for his own ego gratification. No. Jesus revealed his identity—and lived his life—completely for the sake of others. Who he was—and what power he had—was not for him. From the get-go, it was always—and only—for the benefit of others.

With that in mind, consider our Epistle lesson from First Corinthians. That passage deals with some of the interesting and peculiar things that were going on in the church in Corinth in the first century. There was some pretty weird stuff happening—and some extremely selfish stuff … and some very evil stuff. And at the core of it—as is so often the case when religion goes bad—there was a strong sense of “who is best,” and a strong sense of “this is mine.”

They were having all kinds of  spiritual experiences and encounters with God—which ought to be a good thing;! But they had become possessive and competitive about all of that. They were saying things like:

  • “this gift is mine”;
  • “this way of doing things is mine”;
  • “this spirituality is mine”;
  • “this special something is all mine!

What Paul says to them in his letter echoes the point made by our gospel reading. What Paul tells them is basically this: “What you have is not for you. What you have is for others.”

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” is how he actually puts it.

This is a fundamental truth about the gifts of God. What you have is not for you. What you have is not even about you—not really. The Corinthians could never get their religion right—or get their lives right, for that matter—until they realized that what they had was neither for them nor about them. It was given to them so they could give it away—so they could use it to build, and to help, and to create.

What Jesus had—who he was, what it was that made him special and unique—this was not given for his own sake. It was given so that Jesus would have a choice. It was given to him so that he could choose to give all of himself for others.

What we have is not for us. Not really. All that we have—however little, or however much—is given to us so that we might become givers. It is given to us so that we might build up, so that we might help, so that we might become part of something greater, so that we might serve our neighbours and build up the larger body.

In one way or another, that is the purpose of our lives, and everything in them.

And this is good news!

I’ll say it again: this is good news.

It is good news that we do not live for ourselves alone, that what we have is not for us. We were not created to live apart from others—closed in upon ourselves, protective, possessive, and defensive. We are not at our best when we live that way. We impoverish ourselves when we live that way. And we do not have to live that way. We can choose to live beyond ourselves—to live for others and for the greater good. And when we choose to do that, miracles will begin to happen.

Our lives will become bigger. We will find ourselves re-created—reborn, if you like—and there will be more to us than we ever imagined possible.

At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, Jesus chose to set aside his own plans and his own schedule. Instead, he chose to reach out and bless the lives of others. In doing that, he showed us how divine our human lives can be.

And there will always be plenty of wine at the wedding!

A LIGHT SWITCHES ON

Epiphany Sunday/Baptism of Christ

TEXTS:  Matthew 2:1-12 and Luke 3:15-22

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matt. 2:1-2)

Today we are observing not one, but two important festivals from the calendar of the Christian church. And so we have not one, but two gospel readings.

The first one is prescribed for Epiphany Day (which was actually on January 6). It tells the story of the “three kings” who “traverse afar” to visit the baby Jesus in his rude manger in the stable in Bethlehem. Except, of course, if we read the Scripture text carefully, we see that they are not referred to there as kings, it does not say there were three of them, and they visited Jesus in “a house,” not a stable.

No matter. However many of them there were, they did visit Jesus, they did bring him gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they did travel a long distance to see him.

These “wise men” (or Magi) were most likely from Persia, or even further east. They might have been on the road for as long as two or three years before they got to Jesus, who almost certainly was not an infant any longer by the time they saw him.

Then there’s our other gospel text for this morning—also from Matthew’s gospel—which is the assigned text for “Baptism of Christ Sunday”:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

Did we have to use both texts today?

Well, no, we didn’t. We could have ignored Epiphany altogether and focused exclusively upon the Baptism of our Lord.

But I think that would have been a real shame. First, both Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ are important festival days in the church year. Epiphany is held in such esteem that many Christians celebrate it with a church service and a family celebration, no matter what day of the week it happens to fall on.

And as for the Baptism of Christ … Well, there is an ancient tradition (well-known in the eastern church), which says that—at the moment of his baptism—Jesus finally understood who he was.

At the moment of his baptism, the carpenter’s boy saw, in a flash of brilliant clarity, just who he was in relation to God. Understood his vocation. Understood what God was calling him to do.

It seems to me that both stories—about the visit of the Magi and about the baptism of Jesus … Both of these are stories about birth.

In the first instance, there is the literal birth of a child. Jesus is born to Mary and Joseph and is visited by the Magi.

In the second instance, there is a metaphorical birth—the turning point where a light switches on, and a new life begins.

And the idea of revelation—of revealing or illuminating or uncovering something—intimately connects Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ. After all, the word epiphany means “a revealing,” or “an illumination.”

In the story of the Magi’s visit to Jesus, a whole bunch of things get revealed.

Traditionally, the big thing that happens is that Christ is made known to the gentiles—because, of course, the wise men were not Jews.

But a whole lot of other things come to light, also.

First, the Magi—who have approached the royal court in Jerusalem because that seems like a logical place to look for a newborn king …

Well, they find out that the incumbent king has no idea what they’re talking about! And so it’s up to the scribes to inform King Herod, who is none too pleased to discover that God is about to overthrow his dynasty.

Nevertheless, Herod points the wise men toward Bethlehem, secretly hoping they will lead him to the child so he can destroy it.

Then, the Magi make their way to Jesus … and they must have been shocked to discover him in humble surroundings (which ought to have revealed to them that when God makes a King, he doesn’t necessarily throw in a royal palace or an earthly throne).

I think Mary and Joseph must have been shocked, too; it’s not every day that you get a chest of gold at a baby shower!

Of course, the final revelation to the wise men comes in the form of a divine warning delivered in a dream: “Don’t go back to King Herod—the guy is bad news!”

Now, fast-forward about 30 years. John the Baptist, a charismatic preacher and desert mystic, has been moving about the Judean countryside, stirring people up with his hellfire-and-brimstone sermons and baptizing them by immersion in the Jordan River.

The child whom the wise ones visited has now grown up. And the man Jesus, moved by the Baptist’s preaching, comes to the riverbank to be baptized. John obliges him, plunging him into the cold, running water. And then there is this amazing, dramatic moment when everything becomes clear as crystal.

When Mark describes this same event, he has the voice from heaven speak directly to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

It is a moment of revelation—of epiphany—not only for those bystanders who heard the voice, but for Jesus, as well. In Matthew’s account, this is made quite explicit. Remember? It says:

“… when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matt. 3:16).

Notice that? “Suddenly the heavens were opened to him.”

A-ha!  This was an “a-ha” moment for Jesus—and, according to that ancient tradition, this was the moment when the carpenter’s son from Nazareth finally got it. This was the moment when he understood—fully and completely—exactly what God was calling him to do, and to be.

This was Jesus’ own, personal, moment of epiphany. This was the moment, perhaps, when everything suddenly made sense. All those stories he’d heard from his mother about the angels and the shepherds and the visitors from far away—that’s what they were all about!

And this idea she had about God being his Father … it was way more than just a figure of speech!

Well, maybe those kinds of thoughts were running through Jesus’ head … the Bible doesn’t really tell us. But when the heavens were opened to him, something got revealed—something that shook him to his core.

As I said, that’s the ancient tradition—and that’s why the feast of the Epiphany is linked as closely to Jesus’ baptism as it is to Jesus’ birth.

This is profound stuff! Serious stuff.

Immediately following his baptism, the devil makes a last-ditch effort to throw Jesus off-course. In all three of the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—Jesus moves directly from the river to the desert. As Matthew’s account tells us: Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1).

Luke’s Gospel adds a detail, saying: “Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his work” (Luke 3:23).

“When he began his work.” He was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to face daunting challenges.

Why? So that he could begin his work—begin it by preparing himself for it through prayer and fasting and contemplation. The wilderness—because of its isolation—is the perfect place to hear the “still-small voice” of God.

Jesus was by now a grown man—and a mature person by the standards of his time. He had most likely been earning a living since he was around 13.

Probably, he had taken up Joseph’s trade, had been a carpenter, had been settled in it. Maybe he had a prospering business, was good at what he did, thought he knew where his life was going.

But then something happened.

God happened! And in a flash, everything was different. His life was transformed. His plans were radically altered. And most everything he had considered important suddenly did not matter anymore. All that mattered now was following the path which lay before him, which God’s light had so brilliantly illuminated.

I wonder … Have you ever had an experience like that? An epiphany? Have you ever had a moment of such life-changing clarity?

We can still expect such encounters, because that’s what Epiphany is all about. It is like seeing the face of God, shown to us in the person of Jesus—first as a tiny infant, then as a grown man.

Moreover, there truly is something real … and present … about the love Jesus has for us. A love so great that it led him to lay down his life for us. Such great love has to make an impression upon us, doesn’t it? If we will just open ourselves up to it. If we do, it will change us forever.

That is the gift of epiphany. It’s more precious than gold, much better than frankincense, or myrrh. And it is offered freely, to anyone who will accept it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

“WE HAVE SEEN HIS GLORY”

Christmas 2C

TEXT: John 1:1-18

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:14)

Throughout Advent and Christmas, we have been pondering this mystery: that, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God became one of us. He took on mortal flesh, which is what incarnation means. But more than this—somehow—what was truly divine became, also, truly human.

No act of God in time and history gives us more reason to hope in any age or any human condition than the Incarnation. At the right time and in the most undeniable and unforgettable way, God stepped into our world of sin and sorrow to break the grip of evil and to save us—from ourselves and all the forces that would deface the image of God in us.

On one night long ago, God entered our world as a helpless infant. He was truly that—and yet, he was more than that. As he grew older, it became increasingly obvious that this was no ordinary man. He looked like us. He grew up like any other child of his time. But he had a reason for being here—a purpose—that required him to be fully and truly human—and yet also … somehow … more than human. In him, we got a permanent glimpse of God; and, in him, we came to know more about God than has ever been known, before or since. In this man Jesus, we saw—and see—the face of God. That had never happened before. And it has never needed to happen—in precisely that way—again.

To the religious community of Jesus’ place and time, it should have come as no surprise that God would appear somehow to influence people and events. As someone has said, the Jewish people were marinated in a God-haunted history. Ever since Adam, God had been actively involved in the nitty-gritty details of their lives. God spoke to Abraham. God came to Jacob and Joseph in dreams. God sent word through the prophets to the leaders and people of Israel. David—Israel’s favorite king—had a life-long conversation with the Lord.

And of course, towering over all the other figures in Jewish tradition is the person of Moses. God’s guiding presence was never more obvious in the lives of any of the remembered heroes and leaders of Jewish history than in the life of Moses. As an infant, he was miraculously protected. He grew up in Pharaoh’s court. When, as an adult, he had to flee Egypt, it appeared that he was not to have a leadership role.

But then God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, and the rest, as they say, is history. God guided Moses as he led the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land.  And then this man—who had been the recipient of so much revelation and guidance—asked a favor of God. He wanted to see God’s face.

And why not? If anybody deserved to see the face of God, surely it was Moses! But God said: “… you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live … there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the  rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:20-23)

This man to whom God had spoken so clearly and so frequently and for so long, was told that he could see God—but not all of God. “You can see where I have been. You can see my backside, but you cannot see my face.” That was as good as it was going to get.

The Jews in Jesus’ time certainly expected that God would show up, but they did not expect God to show up the way he did—as a child of humble parentage, without royal credentials, without power as they understood power. And least of all did they expect him to come with a human face. A distant God speaking from the clouds—this would fit comfortably into their tradition. But the idea of God coming in human form … this would not. The proclamation that God had become flesh and blood—with the feelings and features of any other man—was unimaginable for them.

But God was doing a new thing. And so, here—in the person of Jesus—we come face-to-face with the God whose face even Moses was not allowed to see.

As John begins his Gospel, he offers no details of this remarkable birth. There is no manger scene. There are no angels, no adoring shepherds, no wise men from the East. There is simply the incredible, revolutionary announcement that God has become like us in Christ so that we can become like him.

In this transaction, we come to an understanding of the nature of God that surpasses any previous understanding. In Jesus, we are able to see all of God that we need to see. If we want to know what God is like, we need to keep our eyes fixed upon Jesus. No longer is God a disembodied voice from some far-off place. The Incarnation gives us the wonderful insight that not only is Jesus like God, but God is like Jesus—and always has been.

William Barclay, in his Bible study on the Gospel of John, tells a story about a little girl who, when she was confronted with some of the more bloodthirsty and savage parts of the Old Testament, felt called upon to offer some explanation in defense of God. She said: “That happened before God became a Christian.” 1

However, in John’s portrayal of Jesus, he tells us that God was always like Jesus, but we never realized that until Jesus came. And if God is like Jesus, we need not be afraid.

It is wonderful to know that the God who came in Christ still comes. The experience is not limited to dead saints and ancient history. It happens every day. It happens to—and through—some of the unlikeliest people and circumstances. It can happen to you. Perhaps it already has.

Most of us have a well-developed theology for the good times. When everything is going along well, we get along fine with the God of good times. And when times are real good, we sometimes get along fine without God. But our “good-time” theology—our theology of prosperity—falls apart when tragedy, sorrow and loss leave our lives shattered. Where is God when our world comes crashing down, and when we face tragedy beyond any human explanation?

In his book Night, Elie Wiesel wrote of the year he spent in Auschwitz, where both his parents and his sister died and where he witnessed unspeakable horrors. He told of one terrible evening when the whole camp was forced to witness the hanging of three prisoners. One of them was just a child whose crime was stealing bread. Wiesel said the boy had the face of a sad angel.

When the three victims were being prepared for execution, a man behind Wiesel asked, “Where is God?” As the whole camp was forced to march past the gallows where the two adults were dead, but the boy was still dying, Wiesel heard the same man behind him asking, “Where is God now?” Ellie Wiesel said he heard a voice in himself answer him, “Where is God? God is here, hanging on this gallows…” 2

The incarnate God in Christ—who himself was executed, dying an ignominious death upon a cross—is always with us. He does not leave us alone, ever—not in life or in death, not in the best or the worst of times. God shows up at the strangest times and in the strangest people.

In his play The Green Pastures, playwright Marc Connelly has a moving and memorable scene. While the Lord is anxiously looking out over the parapets of heaven, trying to decide what to do with the dreadful situation on earth, the angel Gabriel enters with his horn tucked under his arm. Sensing the Lord’s dilemma, he asks, “Lord, has the time come for me to blow the trumpet?”

“No,” says the Lord. “No, don’t touch the trumpet, not yet.” God continues to struggle with the problem. After watching for a while Gabriel asks the Lord again what he plans to do. Will he send someone to tend to the situation? Who will it be?

Gabriel makes some suggestions: “How about another David or Moses? You could send one of the prophets—Isaiah or Jeremiah. There are lots of great prophets up here. What do you think, Lord?”

Then, without looking back at Gabriel, God says, “I am not going to send anyone. This time I am going myself!”

“… the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14, 16-17)

Thanks be to God. Amen.

__________________________

1 Barclay, William, Daily Study Series, The Gospel of John, Vol. 1. Westminster Press, 1956. p. 16

2 Wiesel, Elie, Night, Bantam Books, New York, 1982. pp. 61-62.

“IS GOD REALLY REAL?”

Christmas Eve

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)

“Is God really real?”

Kind of an odd question to ask, I guess, on Christmas Eve …

But … “Is God really real?”

That’s the question that was posed to me by a teenager in a congregation I served once, more than two decades ago. And I’ve never forgotten her question, because …

Well, because it shook me up so badly! It wasn’t a question I expected to hear, especially from her. You see, her family was very active in the church. She was very active in the church! In fact, she was one of the most enthusiastic members of a very active group of high school kids in my congregation.

And here she was, asking me: “Is God really real?”

What she meant, I discovered—what she was really asking—was this: “Is God a real Person?”

Is God a real Person—someone who thinks and feels and acts—or is God just a metaphor, a figure of speech, a way of describing our highest ideals, our best intentions?

And as I listened to my young friend, I became less shocked and more saddened. Saddened, because I realized just how easy it is for someone to grow up in a Christian community without ever encountering the Living God. Without ever understanding—perhaps, even, without ever being told—that God is not only a real Person, but is a Person with whom you can have a real relationship.

Yet, the reason we celebrate Christmas is precisely because God wanted to be in relationship with us. Christmas is all about what the Church calls “the doctrine of the Incarnation.”

Christmas is about God coming to earth, and taking on human flesh, and living and breathing and moving in this world as one of us … all so that we could see that he was, and is, real. Maybe part of the reason God did that was because people have always had trouble believing that he was real—or couldn’t see him as he really was.

If you read the Old Testament—especially the prophets—you’ll realize that God’s people seemed always to be forgetting about him. Over and over again, they began to act as if God was not real; and so they began to act wickedly, or to worship other gods. Over and over again, they had to be reminded of who God really was.

We human beings are slow learners. In fact—truth to tell—we’re kind of dull … at least, when it comes to matters of the spirit.

God gave us instructions to follow—rules, laws, commandments—not to spoil our fun, but to keep us from destroying ourselves. Which is what sin does. It destroys us. Sin is spiritual disease, and—left unchecked—it is always deadly.

But we could never follow the rules, or the laws, or the commandments, well enough. We kept messing up, and we kept getting sicker. Death became our ruler. Not even our best attempts at religion made things any better. Humanity just kept drifting further and further away from God. Further away from his righteousness. Further away from his love.

It was as if—never having seen God—we could not imagine what he was like, or what he wanted from us. Or what he wanted for us. Maybe, we couldn’t even make ourselves believe that he was real.

So, there was only one thing to do. God had to come, personally, to find us, to speak to us, to show us who he really is. To show us that he is really real!

That’s what Christmas is about. It’s about a God who loved us so much that he came to us in the person of his own Son, so that we could see him, and touch him, and listen to him. So that those who knew him best could write about him, and record his teaching, and leave us a testimony that, yes, “He really is real!”

As we’ve walked together through the season of Advent, as we’ve heard the familiar accounts of Scripture about Jesus’ birth, I hope we’ve gotten the message. I hope you all know—and believe—that these Bible stories are not fairy tales, or fancies, or clever metaphors—or anything other than what they really are.

Because what they really are is truth. And the truth is this:

“… God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its savior.” *

Jesus did not come to condemn us. He came to rescue us. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. He came to save us—save us from our sins, save us from our sicknesses, our selfishness, our cruelty, our loneliness, and our lostness. He came to heal broken hearts, and raise up the lowly and the downtrodden. He came to give us hope. He came to make the world right again, one person at a time.

We call all of that stuff salvation. It’s about making us and the entire Creation healthy and whole—not just for today, but for eternity.

We know that evil is real. It’s as real as our own heartache, our own guilt, our own regret. It’s as real as the pain of cancer, or the relentless gnawing of hunger. Only a real God can fix things like that. And only a loving God would care to try. But we are fortunate, because not only is our God absolutely real, but his love is absolutely real, too.

And, if you’ll let him … if you’ll invite him into your life—if you’ll let his love into your life—then your life will not only be changed; it will last forever. You will live forever, surrounded by God’s love—and you will know, without a doubt, that God is love.

That’s kind of what I told my young friend, all those years ago. And I think that, at first, it sounded as strange to her as maybe it sounds strange to you, right now. But not long after our conversation, she took a step of faith. She decided to believe that God was real. And then she decided to trust in this God, whom she had decided to believe was real.

And later, she told me that decision had made all the difference. “Today,” she said, “I don’t just believe that God is real; I know he is!”

Hearing all of this, you may still be skeptical. You may be asking yourself, “How can I know that any of this is true?”

I can only tell you this: faith is a gift. But it is a gift which will be given if you sincerely ask for it. So, if you’ve always wanted this gift, but you’ve never asked for it, perhaps now would be a good time.

All I’m asking you to do is consider it … and remember, our Lord is always listening.

Lord Jesus, deep in our hearts, we know you’re real—and deep in our hearts, we know we need you. We need the love you offer. We need the salvation you bring. We’ve tried to fix ourselves, but we can’t do it. We need you to come into our lives. Heal us, Lord. Comfort us. Pardon and restore us, one person at a time. Bring us closer to yourself, one person at a time. For your name’s sake. Amen.

________________

* John 3:16-17 (Good News Translation Copyright © 1992 by American Bible Society)

MOTHER OF GOD

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C

TEXT: Luke 1:39-45

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:41-43)

“Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” So said Elizabeth, when her much younger relative came to visit her. Elizabeth was at the time pregnant with the child who would become John the Baptist, and Luke tells us that—at Mary’s greeting—the fetus within Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy.

“Why has this happened to me? Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?”

Today, I’m going to tread on dangerous ground for a Protestant minister … because I’m going to offer you a message about the “Mother of God.” It is a theme around which Protestants have stepped warily, fearful of trespassing into the realm of idolatry. Today, however, I invite you to put old trepidations aside, step nearer with me, and take a closer look.

But first, let’s start with something less theologically flammable—like the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos, and, in contrast, the speck of dust called earth, and the dust mites which live upon it; namely, us!

During the last century or so, we’ve become increasingly aware of our smallness. Since 1990, we’ve had the Hubble telescope up in space, offering us glimpses of stars and planets almost infinitely distant from us. Since 1997, we’ve been sending motorized robots to explore the surface of Mars, and Voyager One—which has been providing us with pictures of our solar system since 1977—exited the heliosphere in 2012, carrying the “golden record” into inter-stellar space.*

Advances like these have radically altered our perspective on our place in the universe. Also, the thoughts of brilliant minds—like Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies—have sharpened our awareness of the awesome immensity of things, and of our own apparent insignificance.

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established,” wrote the psalmist, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them …?” (Psalm 8:3-4)

Atheists of a nihilistic bent would quickly reply: “Nothing! Humanity is nothing!”

Others would say that—even if there is a Supreme Being who created this enormous universe—you cannot expect him, her (or it) to be personally interested in us.

To such people, our faith in a God who knows our names and guides our footsteps … Well, it’s just nonsense. To them, we are but chance flecks of consciousness in an unconscious cosmos. We do not count for anything.

To such people, our Advent and Christmas celebrations are the pathetic residue of primitive mythology. To them, Christmas is a game we play once a year, to brighten up a meaningless existence.

But, to such people, the Christian Church has this to say: “Let us tell you about the young woman who became the mother of God.”

Modern people are not the first to imagine a deep gulf between God and his Creation—between the divine and the human.  In very ancient times, people believed that the gods lived high above the earth, beyond the blue dome arching above us. Occasionally, these gods might visit the mountain peaks, or ride across the sky in the sun, the moon and the stars. Much later—by the golden age of Greek civilization—philosophers developed loftier, more abstract conceptions of deity—but these were more like an Ideal than like a living, loving Person. To thinkers like Plato, the idea of communing intimately with God would have seemed ridiculous.

In the early centuries of Christianity, the Church had to struggle against philosophies which declared that the sublime God could not tolerate any direct contact with human beings. God was pure spirit, they said, and he was far too holy to dirty his hands by touching the imperfect, debased, material world. According to this scheme of things, humanity and divinity could never meet.

However, there could be go-betweens. Some Hellenistic religions believed in superbeings who could act as intermediaries. Nevertheless, close relationship between God and earthlings was thought to be impossible.

Not surprisingly, some Christians who had been educated in this philosophy (saturated with it, in fact!) tried to force Christ into a more acceptable Hellenistic mould. As a group, we refer to them today as Gnostics.

Some Gnostics held that Jesus was neither God nor human, but a supernatural mediator. According to them, Mary gave birth to another class of being—one who came to bring knowledge of God to humanity, so that we crude earthlings could begin the long climb to purification and, ultimately, arrive in the highest heaven.

Another school of thought said that Jesus was divine—but was definitely not born of a woman. Rather, he came as a spirit in human disguise. People thought they were dealing with a man—but that was merely an illusion; the feet of Jesus never really touched the corrupt ground of planet earth.

The mainstream of Christianity, though, believed quite differently. And orthodox Christians tried to counter Gnostic teaching in a number of ways. Today, I want to talk about two of these ways: story and creed.

One way of countering Hellenistic philosophy was by the use of story.

Towards the end of the first century, as the Gnostic distortions began to gain strength, Christians started to speak more frequently about the birth of Jesus. They asserted that, while Jesus was—unequivocally—God, he was also—unequivocally—human, born of flesh and blood, just like all the rest of us. 

Before that—during the first three decades or so of the Church’s history—Christians did not much concern themselves with the birth of Jesus. It was his teaching, death and resurrection that occupied their worship and proclamation. In fact, the very earliest documents of Christianity—like most of the New Testament letters, and the Gospel of Mark—make almost no mention of Jesus’ birth.

But by the time Matthew and Luke were writing, the Gnostic influence was becoming very powerful. Realizing this, these two gospel writers set out to explain just how the eternal Word of God became incarnate. Using slightly different details, Matthew and Luke tell the story of how Jesus was born as a human baby. They declare that God can indeed have direct interactions with people. The gulf between heaven and earth was wide, but not impassable; it was, in fact, bridged by God himself—and he did it by taking on our human flesh.

So in Luke’s story, when a pregnant Mary pays a visit to her pregnant relative Elizabeth, the older woman exclaims: “Who am I, that I should be visited by the mother of my Lord?”

Mark those words: she calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” In that sentence, the supposed rift between heaven and earth is closed. This—in story form—is a profound statement of faith.

The human woman Mary gave birth to the divine Child, and—in Christ Jesus—humanity and divinity come together. For God, flesh is not an insurmountable obstacle. A woman’s body is neither an impossible—nor an unworthy—place for God to reside.

A second way in which Christians countered Hellenistic thought was by the use of creeds. Especially by the fourth and fifth centuries, they tried to protect faith in the incarnate Christ through formal creeds, voted on at ecumenical councils. 

During this period, the phrase “mother of God” was written into creedal texts. Now, in doing this, the bishops were not imparting divine status to Mary. They were definitely not saying that Mary preceded God or that she created God! But they were insisting that the divine Child started as a human fetus, carried in Mary’s womb and later nursed at her breast.

God’s true Child, our Lord Jesus, was fully mothered by Mary. She was truly the mother who bore the Divine Son of God. And so, the gulf between God and earth is bridged by that creedal expression, “Mother of God.”

To the elite philosophers, this was shocking stuff! But the Christians persisted.

“Like it or lump it,” they said. “That’s how it is.”

By calling Mary the God-bearer, the Church declared that spirit and flesh were not antagonists. Christians affirmed that God and people were much closer than the Greek philosophers thought. But more than that, they made clear the following points:

  • God does not despise this earth;
  • Men and women are not too impure to have the most intimate contact with God;
  • God has made us for fellowship with himself; and
  • God loves us and treasures us as his beloved children.

Historically, Protestants have been wary of the phrase, “Mother of God.” We’ve been afraid that it comes too close to deifying Mary. But that was never the true intention of Roman Catholic teaching.

In any case, the birth stories of Matthew and Luke—and the creeds of the fifth century—were not trying to exalt Mary into a demi-god. They were simply testifying to the truth: that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God really did walk among us, as one of us.

Divinity really did issue from the body of Mary. She truly was the God-bearer, the mother of our Lord. Christianity as we know it is based upon this assumption. So, on this fourth Sunday of Advent—as a Protestant—I want to celebrate the phrase, “Mother of God.”

First and foremost, I want to celebrate it because it underscores the incomparable love of God. It also emphasizes the unique humility of God, and the saving beauty of God.

Secondly, it proclaims that there is hope for our race. If the Divine can become “incarnate in the virgin’s son,” then humanity and divinity are not poles apart! Human flesh is not a lost cause, for God himself has become “bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh.”

Cosmically speaking, we may appear as insignificant bits of chance consciousness on one irrelevant speck of dust. But, according to the Bible, we can be God-bearers. For we are made in God’s own image.

As Athanasius of Alexandria put it: “God became human so that the human could become divine.” And that, really, is what the Christmas story is all about.

So, thanks be to God for this good news! Thanks be to God for the one who was “blessed amongst women.” And thanks be to God for the fruit of her womb: Jesus, whose Advent we await.

__________________

* Voyager 1 carries a copy of the “Golden Record”—a message from humanity to the cosmos that includes greetings in 55 languages, pictures of people and places on Earth and music ranging from Beethoven to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

AGAIN I SAY, “REJOICE!”

Third Sunday of Advent

TEXTS: Luke 3:18-22 and Philippians 4:4-7

In many different ways John preached the good news to the people. (Luke 3:18)

Always be filled with joy in the Lord. I will say it again. Be filled with joy. (Philippians 4:4)

Good news! Be filled with joy!

Joy is a special kind of happiness which wells up from deep within the human soul. It is not superficial. And it is not complicated. Even a little child may know it. As someone has said, “Joy overflows in time, yet is the stuff of eternity.”

This special happiness is the dominant theme of the third Sunday of Advent. In chapter four of Philippians, Paul celebrates the truth that the Lord is near. In chapter three of Luke, John the Baptist preaches the good news to the people.

Joy is the overarching theme here. At least until Herod throws John in prison, and … Well, that’s a story for another day.

What brings happiness?

Most Canadians, I’m sure—if you were to ask them that question—would give answers reflecting the assumptions and illusions of North American culture.

What brings happiness? Most would say things like …

Wealth. Winning LOTTO MAX, or being a millionaire before the age of 30. Plenty of money equals plenty of happiness. Right?

Or being young; hence the multi-billion-dollar cosmetic industry which is focused on making us look younger than we really are. To appear youthful equals happiness.

Or good health. The gigantic market for health products testifies to our belief that good health guarantees happiness.

Or popularity. To be popular, to have admiring people around you, who flatter you. If possible, to be a sports star, or a movie star or a rock star … this is happiness!

Or a good marriage. To marry a person that you are in madly in love with … this surely is the very definition of happiness. Hence the happy ending the majority of people expect from cheap novels and romantic films.

Or having grandchildren! This remains a much-desired source of happiness for most of us who are parents of grown-up children.

Now, I haven’t paid Ipsos-Reid to conduct a poll, but I would suggest to you that all of these things would rate very highly on the list of Canadian assumptions about the sources of happiness.

You might wish to add a few more.  Like “success.” Or “power.” Or, for those of you who set your sights as low as I do … a bucket of fried chicken (with fries, gravy and cole slaw)!

Yeah. I’m really not that hard to please.

Now, before I proceed any further, let me acknowledge the good in most of those assumptions. They do have some validity.

For example, wealth. Wealth is not a bad thing. There is no virtue in grinding poverty; having some money certainly improves our sense of well-being.

Or youth. The energy of a young person is a considerable asset. Aging has its drawbacks.

Or health. Of course health is a good thing. Who would choose disease over health?

Popularity is not a bad thing, either. We all need to be liked and respected. Being unpopular is not fun.

A good marriage is a wonderful thing—and a love-match is a pretty good start.

And as for grandchildren … I think they’re awesome!

Be assured, I am not knocking these things. But I do ask the question: are they truly a lasting source of that profound happiness which we call joy? Can they be relied on to deliver what we want them to?

Sadly, the answer is “no!” An objective look at Canadian society flatly contradicts our widespread assumptions about the sources of sustainable happiness. The roots of joy are not found in wealth, health, popularity, youthfulness, marriage, or even grandchildren.

The evidence shows otherwise; evidence that we all can see and hear.

There are some “could-be” grandparents who boot their pregnant daughters out of the house because these young women insist on choosing motherhood. Not much joy of grandparenting there.

It’s the same with marriage. Apparent love-matches can turn sour before a year is up. Some of those who expected a life of unabated happiness wind up hating each other! And even in the happiest of marriages, the heart still seeks something yet more profound.

What about popularity? We all know that there are plenty of examples of lonely and despairing superstars, for whom authentic joy remains elusive. Some are even driven to suicide.

As for youthfulness … Look, we’ve all met many joyful elderly people. And we’ve all seen plenty of miserable young people!

The same can be said about good health. Some who are physically robust are spiritually desolate. On the other hand, some of the most radiantly joyful people you will ever meet spend their days on hospital wards or in extended care facilities.

Lastly, there is the biggest myth of them all: wealth.

Common sense shouts at us that wealth does not bring happiness. The world is littered with nasty, sour, and ruthless millionaires; who smile for the camera while their souls are as parched as a desert.

On the other hand, there are multitudes of ordinary folk with just barely enough money to scrape by, who are a sheer joy to be around.

What really disturbs me, is that I see many Christians getting caught up in the same illusions as the secular world. And what disturbs me even more deeply is that I find myself sometimes day-dreaming, getting sucked in by these illusions, tempted by these same false gods.

Christians know—or should know—that real joy is only to be found in the generous, supreme love of God in Jesus Christ. It’s called grace.

Joy is knowing the grace of God. Joy is knowing that you are treasured and cherished by the very Spirit who is the Source of our existence.

Joy means losing the anxiety which is bred by slavish religion, or arid godlessness. It means finding “the freedom of the glory of the children of God,” as Paul told the Romans (Rom. 8:21).

Joy is to know that in success or failure, in sickness or in health, poverty or wealth, youth or old age, living or dying, our lives are guarded by this amazing grace.

“Salvation” is the word commonly used to describe the ministry of Christ in our lives.

Salvation has two meanings: rescue and healing. Both of these apply.

Christ rescues us from all the illusions and bondages that the world would thrust upon us. More than that, Christ’s love heals the depths of our being. In fact, he is the love which restores us to health. He enables us to bask and delight in the affection of God. In Jesus Christ, we see the immense, rescuing, liberating, healing love of God—focused in one human life. He is Emmanuel—“God-with-us.” That is what we are preparing to celebrate as we draw near to Christmas.

So I return to the words of the apostle Paul: “Always rejoice in the Lord. I tell you again: Rejoice!”

You remember the story of Paul, don’t you? Because of Emmanuel, that devout but miserable fellow—Saul of Tarsus—became Paul, the joyful servant of the risen Christ. He had been a legalistic religious fanatic: proudly racist, fearful of those whom he considered heretics, anxious lest he break one of God’s commandments—and murderously hateful toward this new sect of Jesus-followers.

But when—on that road to Damascus—he was confronted with the blinding love of God in Christ Jesus, joy and liberty filled his being. Joy was the by-product of his new faith. It welled up unquenchably from the eternal, intimate presence of God.

Years later—after having been flogged on numerous occasions; shipwrecked while on missionary journeys; after having been spat upon and beaten, driven out of one town after another … After having been ridiculed by intellectuals; scorned by his fellow Pharisees; pelted with stones; and shackled in prisons …

Finally, when he was held under arrest in Rome awaiting his trial and execution, Paul was able to write to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi,” saying: “Always rejoice in the Lord. I tell you again: Rejoice! … The Lord is near. Have no anxiety about anything.”

Christian joy does not depend upon life’s circumstances. Its source is eternal. That, perhaps, is the message we most need to hear right now, as we speed down the hectic fast lane to Christmas.

So, if you haven’t already … please take some time to fuel up with the love of God. Fuel up on Jesus before you get back on the Christmas freeway. Fill your tank with the joy of the Spirit—then journey on in faith and hope and love.